Former Duncan Mayor Smithe was in the business of trying to acquire more land for the City of Duncan in 1914. (City of Duncan photo)

Former Duncan Mayor Smithe was in the business of trying to acquire more land for the City of Duncan in 1914. (City of Duncan photo)

T.W. Paterson column: Almost from day one Duncan has sought to expand its boundaries

When Duncan separated from N. Cowichan, some feared that the Municipality would lose its charter

By T.W. Paterson

Incredible as it sounds now, when Duncan separated from North Cowichan in 1912, some feared that the Municipality would lose its charter.

There’s a distinct sense of deja vu in the forthcoming referendum as to whether or not the City of Duncan should amalgamate with the Municipality of North Cowichan.

Duncan, you see, has been dissastisfied with its boundaries from the day it seceded from the municipality to incorporate as a city in 1912.

As early as July 1914, the city was seeking to expand its footprint, not by realignment with North Cowichan, but at the expense of its other neighbours, Cowichan Tribes.

Reported the Cowichan Leader in a front-page story: “Mayor Smithe announced yesterday that the city was in receipt of a letter from the Royal Commission on Indian Affairs for British Columbia, stating that the council’s application for a grant of 100 acres of Indian reserve on the west of the city has been found in order and has been favorably recommended to the Indian Department in Ottawa…”

The Leader took this to be a promising sign; not only because of the commission’s favourable response to the city’s application but the fact that the province and MPP W.H. Hayward had previously expressed support for a remaking of the boundaries between city and Cowichan lands.

The idea behind the expansion was to allow for “needed park and recreation ground purposes also to give an outlet to a number of streets which end in ‘dead-ends’ against the reserve at the present time…”

It should be noted that some Cowichan land adjoining Trunk Road was already serving communal recreation purposes and the Cowichan Agricultural Hall had been built on land by the Mound leased from its private owner.

Nothing came of this proposal and when next Duncan cast covetous eyes upon its neighbours it was in a half-hearted attempt to acquire property beside the Somenos Methodist Church, Drinkwater Road, for a public cemetery. A public cemetery it did, in fact, become, but under ownership of North Cowichan.

Come 1940 and Duncan was again on the prowl; this time it was broached by the Chamber of Commerce. Proponent W.E. Christmas noted that there were adjoining areas of North Cowichan which were thickly settled and “should be brought into the city”. He was referring to the Alexander subdivision, the lower part of Gibbins Road and a section at the foot of Islay Street.

These areas, while of “city form,” had no fire protection, sidewalks, street lights or decent roads, but paid more in taxes and higher fire insurance rates. Originally, he said, this liability had been reflected in a lower taxation rate but this no longer was the case. Believing that these communities should enjoy the same advantages as full-fledged city residents, Christmas urged the Chamber to endorse the City’s acquiring these areas from the municipality subject to the approval of the residents concerned.

Chamber directors sent the Christmas proposal to committee for further study after Duncan Mayor E.W. Lee acknowledged that the City was “alive to the need for extending its boundaries,” but the war had interfered. However, council preferred any expansion to take place “towards the river”.

August 1945 and the Leader headline proclaimed, “Expansion of Duncan throttled!” A map showing Duncan’s irregular shape (it resembled a stuffed horse on two legs) was meant to again make the point that a “hemmed in and restricted” City had only one direction in which it could expand. This time, council had solicited the help of MP George Pearkes to “lay the case strongly before the Ottawa authorities”.

A year later, the City was “about to burst at the seams” if adjacent Tribal lands weren’t released for residential and business purposes. The land was acquired but the issue of boundaries just wouldn’t go away; in 1948 the Leader again addressed the matter, this time in an editorial: “The City of Duncan has grown until it is bursting its sides and the time is fast approaching when something should be done about the matter, either through a move to extend the city’s boundaries or by a return to North Cowichan from which it sprang.”

Acnowledging that re-amalgamation would not appeal to city residents, the editor suggested that any expansion be at the municipality’s expense, an alternative that would be equally unacceptable to municipal citizens unless they could be shown that the changes were advantageous.

“Naturally, taxes would be one of the first items on which comparisons would be made. City authorities say that they find little difference between the levies on city property and those on neighbouring property in the municipality. The facts are readily obtainable.

“Services would then form the basis of any action there might be for an outside section to throw in its lot with the city, these being principally water, fire protection, roads, sidewalks and — when they come — sewers.”

In 1957 City residents were to vote whether to acquire 425 acres extending from Herbert Street (Goverment Hill) to Trunk Road and the Island Highway (Allenby Road). Forty-seven acres had been offered for sale by the Cowichan Indian Band for $70,000. Should residents veto the purchase, they were warned, an existing shortage of building lots within City limits would become acute. Sticking points were the need for new roads, water and fire protection. Nevertheless, urged the Leader: “Development in the next 10 years in this district hinges on this vote.”

Twenty-two years later, Duncan was again restless. Only the previous year an attempt at amalgamation between Duncan and North Cowichan had been decisively rejected by voters. Undeterred (and unsuccessful), the City applied to the CVRD to annex portions of Eagle Heights Electoral Area to the south which was already within the city’s fire protection boundaries.

By 2004 Duncan was again eying its weaker neighbours, this time Electoral Areas E (Sahtlam/Glenora) and Area D (Cowichan Bay). But not in total; rather, the City wanted to gerrymander its expansion by choosing only the revenue-producing portions of each area. The case it put forward to those most affected was decidedly limp: “The City and Areas D and E share a number of services but there is uneven representation on the decision bodies and uneven funding for local services. A municipal boundary extension could address some aspects of this.”

A study by an independent consultant confirmed that residents of the dismembered areas would see their taxes rise (substantially in Area E) to make up the resulting significant shortfalls, and those residents who found themselves within the new city limits would also face increased taxes. Faced with the resulting public opposition, Duncan quietly let the matter slide for all of five years before Mayor Phil Kent suggested the possibility of a replay, this time in the form of expropriation of the Koksilah Industrial Park and Eagle Heights community.

Again, this outraged another Duncan, Area E Director Loren Duncan, who’d earlier used a dictionary to make his case by defining the terms Rapacious and Rapine. The real answer, he wrote, lay in turning back the clock to 1912: “It’s time for Duncan to go home [to North Cowichan].” He has since predicted that this will inevitably happen.

In October 2005, at the city’s instigation, Duncan and North Cowichan were again talking of the possibility of reuniting. Cowichan Mayor Jon Lefebure was non-committal: “We’re interested in amalgamation but we’re not going to be pursuing it. If Duncan was interested, Duncan and North Cowichan seemed the most straightforward and feasible amalgamation.”

The issue of amalgamation between Duncan and North Cowichan has cropped up several times since then and is now set to go to referendum, in both the city and the municipality, on June 23. Perhaps this time — finally — the matter will be resolved once and for all.